Decision Dilemmas: The Power of Metaphors


This post is inspired by a 19 April, 2011 national Post article titled: “Metaphorically speaking, again and again” by David Brooks. Brooks explores how using metaphors in our speech, writing and thinking is not only pervasive but can have postive and detrimental effects. I find metaphors powerful means for enhancing and impeding decision making.

He offers two specific tupes of evidence to show how pervasive metaphors are in our language/thinking activities:

First, a quote from the British press before the last national election:

“Britain’s recovery from the worst recession in decades is gaining traction, but confused economic data and the high risk of hung Parliament could snuff out its momentum.”

Twenty eight words and four metaphors:

  1. Economies gain traction (like tractors?)
  2. Momentum gets snuffed out (like a cigarette?)
  3. Confused economic data (like a confused mind?)
  4. Hung Parliament (like an execution?)

Secondly, some linguistic research suggests that people use a metaphor every 10 to 25 words. Some examples where we use metaphors (and the nature of them) include:

  • relationships: often use health metaphors such as “sick relationship” or “healthy marriage”
  • arguments: often use war metaphors such as “attacked ” the pro-side or “capitulated” to the “strength” of the argument
  • time: often use monetary metaphors such as “spent” or “waste” time
  • money: often use liquid metaphors such as “dipping into savings, sponging off friends
  • marketplace movements: when going up use “agent” metaphors such as “climbing” or “soaring”; when dropping we use “object” metaphors such as “falls”, “plummets”, or “slides”

Why do we use metaphors so much? There are several non-exclusive possibilities including:

  • We don’t know of a better way to express something. This means we are looking for an adverb or adjective that conveys some special meaning to something.
  • We don’t understand the phenomenon enough to have a true theory about it. Think of the distinction between Newton’s notion of gravity (a mass’s attracting force) versus Einstein’s (mass’s bending the space time continuum – “It’s okay I don’t fully get it either”).
  • A means for swaying thought about some topic (use of positive or negative qualifiers.
  • A way of trying to bring out some feature or aspect of something that wasn’t as obvious before.

Part of my consulting work is assist people deal with their decision dilemmas (are having difficulty in finding a better answer to an important issue). A key early step in my assistance is to understand how the issue is described by the client. Invariably the description will have a metaphor in it.

A generic example may be: “We are unsuccessful because we have only captured 50% of the market and we don’t know how to change this!” Clearly this is an example of the “glass half empty” metaphor.

The Power (both helpful and detrimental) of metaphorical thinking and language is it suggests strategies and related courses of action. So if the metaphor is a novel one, it can suggest possibilities that were not as obvious to us before. If the issue is a long standing (sic) pernicious one, our metaphor literally blinds (sic again) us from easily seeing novel alternatives for action.

As you might suspect, my efforts in assisting those with decision dilemmas is to get them to explore changing the metaphors at the root of their issue (e.g., start describing your market share as a glass half full).

However, as I have become more interested in the topic of uncertainty and risk (U&R) I have become more appreciative about how our metaphors help us see and ignore potential U&R events.

Let’s use the glass half empty/full example:

  • The half empty metaphor helps us very easily see U&R of not having more market share.
  • The half full metaphor helps us very easily see U&R of having more market share.

Go ahead and try the experiment: get two (separated or ignorant of each other) groups to brain storm what we might do to deal with significant competitive current and future issues. I bet you will get quite different lists. I also bet that when you explore the U&R aspects, the emphasis will differ between the two groups.

Both aspects of U&R apply to our market share circumstance. What I am interested in is how our thinking about something that is important to us is made easier/not, better/not, safer/not, etc. by the approach we use (i.e., adopting any specific metaphor) to describing or defining it.

As a consultant, I am now so much more aware of how metaphors provide us with a “way to move forward” (yes, sic again) or” impede us from making progress” (yes, sic at my expense [sic] again).

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About 123stilllearning456

As a management consultant I am passionately interested in talent management and risk/uncertainty issues. In the area of talent management I propose that we seek strategies that look beyond the staffing/employee centric frames of reference. I have been frustrated at the "closing down on possibilities" by these more conventional staffing/employee centric approaches. I have been impressed where people have found systematic solutions to their talent management issues by going beyond the conventional approaches. In the area of risk and uncertainty, I am interested in making this topic relevant to more normal decision making situations. My conceptual foundation is to use the micro-economist's fixed/variable cost theme. I also think it is important to look at these issues for people through their emotional and psychological lens. As a premise I think risk and uncertainty only exist where there is a person who cares about possible events and its consequences. Hence, risk and uncertainty are social based concepts (no sentience, no risk and uncertainty). A major influence on my thinking in this area is Nassim Taleb of "Black Swan" fame. This BLOG provides me with an opportunity to express my thoughts on topics that interest me. As this is an online diary, content is more important to me than polish. I apologize if this distracts from readers' enjoyment and learning. Still I find this a useful way to live up to my namesake, learn more from others and hopefully provoke creative thoughts and ideas in others.
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